Walker Pass, Halloween 1997

[Another fragment of desert writing. This one overlaps the last in a spot or two. What can I say; I’m working on getting the Journal to the printer this week. No time to write until tomorrow.]

At Walker Pass in October, the sky is full of constellations and ravens. A few clouds do leak over the pass from the Tulare Basin, and in a good pinyon year, like this one, the Clark’s nutcrackers and Steller’s jays get a bit more conspicuous. But ravens reign over the air of the Canebrake Creek drainage, flying in desultory pairs past the dusty slopes of pinyon peak, past the trucks groaning over the divide on the Bakersfield-Ridgecrest run, over to the barren south face of Morris Peak and then, inexplicably, back again. And only a few hours’ worth of return flights bring the sunset, and the long night, and the march of the mythopoetic Greek stick figures across the sky.

It’s perhaps a natural conclusion to reach, when camping in this part of the world, that there should be a constellation to honor the raven, though honoring the raven might not nowadays be a popular suggestion hereabouts. Ravens have done well these past few decades, eating garbage and imported exotic insects and the younger generation of endangered desert tortoises, and making themselves some probably deserved enemies. I’ve the bleeding heart’s usual sympathy for the maligned, and find in the raven a compelling model for something or other. It’s a useful animal to adopt as a totem. Anytime you want advice from your spirit guide, just look up, and there’s one to instruct you. If you don’t mind seeking counsel from a guru who’s eating week-old grease from a styrofoam clamshell. 

Tonight, I watch the stars as they wheel, looking for a likely group to rename in honor of Corvus corax. The Pleiades rise up out of the orange glow over Ridgecrest, and I consider them, but they’re too gregarious a constellation. More like cedar waxwings or finches. Then the bull chases the seven sisters higher into the sky, its “V” presenting likely possibilities, but again I pass. Too deep a cleft in Taurus. Orion rises sometime later, the hunter chasing the bull, but I don’t even bother. It’s just as I drift off to sleep that Sirius crests the line of pinyons between our campsite and the pass, and epiphany comes. It’s one star, but it’s perfect; bright, seemingly shifting color, the light and hue of a front-lit raven’s beak. Sirius the crow star.

A foot in my stomach, courtesy the dog, and I realize I’m dreaming. I’d gone to sleep long before Orion rose. Now it’s late in the morning — almost 5:45 — and at least fifty degrees out, and it’s time to unzip the tent and bang away at the two-burner gas camping stove until it lights and the neighbors are awake, so that I can have coffee ready before I fall back asleep at 6:15. I poke my head out of the tent.

To a barrage of cursing from the top of the Joshua trees next to our campsite. A raven — perhaps the sensory stimulus that prompted my subconscious to dream of crow stars — is berating me in a passable imitation of a Midtown Manhattan accent. “Hey! I’m perchin heah!” It flies away as I snap the latch open on the stove, to start the day’s circuits of the Canebrake Creek drainage.

It surprised me, at first, to find Joshua trees at the crest of the Sierra Nevada. Admittedly, Walker Pass is a low point of the crest, at just a little over 5000 feet, just within the altitudinal range of the tree. And I knew that there was a thick forest of the trees on the east slope of the pass, less than a half hour’s walk from where I sit fiddling with the stove’s air pump. But I’d somehow, unconsciously, ruled out the possibility of the trees growing this far up the slope.

In fact, we hadn’t intended to come here at all: it took a disaster to bring us here. We’d planned to meet at Red Rock Canyon State Park. a perpetually windy spot north of Mojave. I was to drive from the East Mojave, and my wife Becky, with the dog, from Oakland. We’d meet at the campground there and — after catching up on the week we’d spent apart — relax for a windy four-day weekend walking the dog and watching Joshua trees while I took copious notes.

When I got to the place where we were to meet, though, it wasn’t there anymore. A couple of feet of rain the previous month, of which neither of us had heard, undid that plan: The campground at the park had been washed out by a flash flood, and the road was closed. After a moment of panic in which I realized we had no way to get in touch about an alternate plan, Becky and Zeke pulled up behind my truck at the roadside. A BLM ranger suggested Walker Pass as an alternate, and we headed for the hills.

I’d swallowed a bit of regret at the thought of leaving Joshua tree country for the weekend, unnecessarily as it turned out. Driving up Freeman Canyon toward the pass, through that swale’s incredibly thick forest of Joshuas, I eyed the band of conifers at the crest and waited for the yuccas to thin and fade into pinyon and juniper. And thin and fade they did, but before they vanished altogether, there came the notch in the crest and Walker Pass and still, at the road’s summit, there were joshua trees two hundred feet upslope. And winding down the first switchback on the west slope of the pass, just before the entrance to the BLM campground, a clump of Joshuas appeared just at the Caltrans sign announcing 5000 feet of elevation. Joshua trees living at 5000 feet on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada was not a thing I had ever expected to see.

Here in my morning perch at 5100 feet, I’ve almost gotten used to the presence of the Joshuas. The clump in our campsite is not too spectacular by the standards that might apply a mile east. It’s not more than five feet across, and the tallest trunk is maybe seven feet high. There are half a dozen trees in the clump, not counting a half dozen rhizome sprouts poking through the campsite duff The felted dead leaves are worn off the windward sides of the trunks. If they were junipers rather than Joshua trees, and we had another 4000 feet of relief here on the Sierran crest, I’d call this clump krummholz, the twisted timber of timberline with its distinctive gray and contorted build. Structurally, this clump of Joshua trees owes more to the whitebark pine a hundred miles north than it does to the monstrously large Joshua trees just minutes east of here.

Further west, there are even more clumps, sprinkled through the stray open spaces as the land slants down toward the south fork of the Kern. They look like advance scouts from the westward-marching army camped in Freeman Canyon. They may well be. Who knows? Perhaps given time and a dry climatic cycle, Yucca brevifolia could march down the Kern River to populate the slopes above the San Joaquin Valley.

Joshua trees are far from being the most abundant tree here at Walker Pass. At best, they’re a dramatic yet insignificant component of a grand forest of single-leaf pinyon. This is emphatically a Sierra Nevada scene, and the Joshua tree is a bit player, a Barrymore with a brief, uncredited cameo.

The campground here is maintained by the BLM for the convenience of hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to Canada. By backpackers’ standards, it’s somewhat luxurious. Running, potable water in season (which this is not), spacious and relatively level campsites, an outhouse that provides the user with a natural history lesson in the aggressive behavior of late-season wasps, the comforting sound of east-and west-bound diesel engines winding upgrade and down.

But today, on Halloween, backpackers are scarce. Most of the slow stream of people visiting the campground are after pine nuts; they spend an hour or so in the hills and return with quart bags full, talking about the bumper harvest. They’re competing with the pinyon jays, who cache pine nuts for the Sierran winter, but the birds don’t seem unduly protective of their turf this weekend. In a year like this, there’s plenty for everyone, including the insect larvae and fungal hyphae. There are Steller’s jays roaming the forest as well, and as much as I’ve enjoyed being in the desert the past few weeks, their cries are a welcome reminder of my coastal California home.

6 thoughts on “Walker Pass, Halloween 1997

  1. Hank Fox

    Years ago I watched two ravens apparently cooperating to operate a water tank spigot halfway up the Sherwin Grade. One stood on the release handle, flapping for balance, while the other fluttered vigorously below, showering in the steam of water.

    I always liked ravens.


    By the way, next time take me along, and I can show you a half dozen natural hot springs along the way. Near Bishop, near Mammoth, near Bridgeport. I lived in that area for 22 years, and got to soak in a lot of them. I’d recommend a hot spring as the perfect vantage point from which to pick out appropriate stars for other prospective totem animals.

  2. Jean Sirius

    perfect. i’ve always been underwhelmed by “dog star.” i am not, as it happens, a dog person. ravens, though: ravens are *perfect*. thanks.

  3. Wayne

    Not a constellation per se, but an asterism that is as far as I know unnamed.  Unfortunately the wrong time of year (per your post) unless you wait til the wee hours, but if you look down the middle of Auriga toward the south (and toward the Crab Nebula, IIRC), there’s a long fuzzy string of stars.  I call it the Crotch Stain, but maybe the Mark of the Raven would work.  Signus Corvi?

  4. Jim McCulloch

    I liked this piece, and the one before it, which reminded me of a Mojave Desert trip my wife and I took about 30 years ago. I wrote about it on my blog, where I referenced your Red rock raven piece. I tried to send a trackback ping, but I think it failed. I’m not sure why.

  5. Hank Fox

    Re: My earlier comment here. Last line should read “… showering in the STREAM of water.”